A white van pulls up to Chaval, a Spanish-French brasserie on Portland’s Pine Street, and a passel of boys pours out, as energetic as exploding stars. So much chatter, growing louder by the second.

“I want pizza!” one boy calls out.

Sam Koenigsberg, 34, springs into action, herding the boys – all 11 of them – toward the front door of the restaurant and trying to calm them down at the same time.

“Guys!” he calls out on the sidewalk, “Your good behavior starts right now!”

They pause at the door of one of the hottest restaurants in the city, and after reminding the boys to be respectful and grateful, Koenigsberg uses a little positive psychology: “You guys are all looking good,” he said. “You’re the handsomest group in Maine right now.”

Apologies to those who dined early last Wednesday night at Chaval, but you were witness to a very special – if at times very boisterous – dinner in the lives of these 9- to- 12-year-olds. They are members of the Portland clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine. Many are newcomers to Maine, having immigrated here from places like Somalia, Djibouti, Congo and Angola. Many come from families who don’t have enough to eat, and some are homeless. Like all boys this age, they need a little guidance navigating the world.

“They’re going through a period of life that we all go through before we’re teenagers,” Koenigsberg said, “where there’s a lot of things that they have some sort of peripheral knowledge of, like work and sex, and what it means to be poor or rich, but they’re not having direct conversations about this.”

As director of the Portland club’s “Passport to Manhood,” Koenigsberg teaches them about these things, and shows them how to be “the best human beings they can be.”

“We want them to be mindful and considerate and respectful to men and to women,” Koenigsberg continued, “just the basic things that all people need to learn.”

Chef Damian Sansonetti, who grew up going to the Boys & Girls Club in Boston, delivers food to the Portland club’s Passport to Manhood group.

LEARNING BY DOING

This upscale dinner is both a class where they can practice how to behave in public, and a reward for the hard work they’ve put in so far.

Passport to Manhood is a national program aimed at reinforcing character, leadership and positive behavior. The program tries to teach boys, through discussions and activities, how to be polite, express gratitude, have control over their bodies – at times a difficult task for any 10-year-old – and be open to trying new things.

Even if the boys have plenty of parental guidance, Koenigsberg’s presence reinforces lessons they may have learned at home. The hope is that the skills the boys practice at the restaurant this evening will stay with them, so they can call upon them later in life whenever they go into unfamiliar environments where expectations are high – say, a job interview.

“Research shows that the presence of a non-parent adult and role model in your life is a really important aspect to helping kids become successful,” said Lauren Farina, chief development officer for the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine.

The boys are wearing their nicest clothes when they enter Chaval, which, appropriately, means “kid” in Spanish. Owners Damian Sansonetti – who was himself a member of the Boys Club – and his wife Ilma Lopez, an immigrant from Venezuela, have volunteered their time and their dining room for the dinner. Rosemont Market, a branch of which is down the street, donated the ingredients.

Sam Koenigsberg, who runs Portland’s Passport to Manhood program, right, and Kristen Marsh, program director of the Portland clubhouse, left, with “the handsomest group in Maine right now.”

Lopez said she and Sansonetti like giving back to the community, but for her this donation is personal. Her family came “from nothing,” she says, but her mother always pushed herself and her children to improve their lives. “These kids, if you don’t show them what’s out there, they don’t have incentive to do better,” she said. “There’s so much these kids deserve.”

Food is a big part of the mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine, which provide after-school snacks and dinner for many of their nearly 3,000 members. The five southern Maine clubs serve more than 90,000 meals annually. “It helps them be ready to learn, and it also helps families with food insecurity,” Farina said.

Sometimes food is used at the clubs as a motivator to get kids to behave. But for these boys, it has never been something to savor for its own sake.

Rather than hiding the boys away in the rear dining room, the restaurant seats them in the busier front room, where they will have to be considerate of other diners. Servers Tara Rook and Jeff Krowne take their drink orders – Coke or Sprite? “You say please,” Koenigsberg reminds them.

Koenigsberg shows the boys how to put napkins in their laps. Then he explains how the family-style dinner will work.

“It is going to come out in different courses,” he said. “It’s not going to come out all at once. Be thankful for it. That’s what it means to be a man, OK? We have to be respectful of our community and people who do right by us.”

Koenigsberg is a part-time staffer at the Boys Club. He was going to be a high school English teacher until terminal cancer derailed those plans. He has been honest with the boys about his illness, and he believes that, in a way, it’s helped him gain their confidence. Knowing that Koenigsberg has his own struggles has made it easier for the boys to talk about theirs.

In the beginning, the boys thought being strong meant being tall, working out in a gym and developing abs. Koenigsberg prods them to challenge those assumptions: “Does that mean you’re strong, or does (being strong) mean that you’re there for your family when they need you?”

Koenigsberg has been working with the boys every Thursday for several weeks, using the visit to Chaval as incentive for them to attend every meeting and behave well. They’ve had talks and gone on field trips, most often to Dunkin’ Donuts. When they order, they must look the cashier in the eye and say please and thank you.

A COMEDY OF MANNERS

Krowne arrives with the sodas, and hands fly into the air, trying to get his attention. The noise level rises a notch or two. “Guys! Guys!” Koenigsberg calls out. “Don’t put your hands up! Please and thank you!”

To keep the boys occupied while they wait for dinner, Kristen Marsh, the director of the Portland clubhouse, suggests they go around the table and say what they’ve learned from the Passport to Manhood program. Among other lessons, they say they’ve learned they need to behave differently in a formal setting – like this restaurant – than in a casual one. “Sometimes you can be a kid,” said Esa Antonio. “Sometimes you have to be serious.”

The first course arrives. It’s tomato bread, a classic Catalan snack in which slices of sourdough bread are rubbed with garlic and topped with chopped tomatoes and Spanish extra-virgin olive oil. “Ooh, that’s good!” says Tyler Orcutt.

The boys take small bites at first, then a few start shoving the bread into their mouths until they have chipmunk cheeks.

Salad comes out next, then trays of burgers and housemade fries, the burgers made with fresh local beef and served on brioche buns. Sansonetti helps carry out the burgers, and Koenigsberg introduces him to the boys, who call out thank yous. A few clap.

Hamdi Elmi’s mouth is full of burger when Sansonetti returns with a tray of Amish chicken with potatoes and spinach. Elmi’s eyes grow huge when he sees the extra food. Abdi Abdullahi asks Koenigsberg how they should eat it – like this? he asks, holding a fork and knife to a piece of meat, or like this, picking up a drumstick with his fingers.

Romeo King gently wipes the corners of his mouth with his napkin; the look on his face says he thinks this is funny.

By this time Koenigsberg’s wife, Molly, has arrived and he gives her a kiss. The boys erupt: “Eeeeewwww!”

Their reaction sends the noise level high enough that other diners turn to look, and Koenigsberg shushes them: “Keep your volume down! Remember, we’re in somebody else’s business.” He raises his fist, a gesture the group came up with before the dinner to signal that it’s time to quiet down. “Hey guys. Excuse me? There are other people in here.” Not being disruptive, he reminds them, is “part of what it means to be a man.”

Romeo King and Tyler Orcutt dig into dessert. Asked if he’s ever been to such a nice restaurant before, Romeo King replied: “I’ve been to the fanciest restaurant in Maine. DiMillo’s.”

RESPECT THE CHURRO

As they wait for dessert, some of the boys respond to a query about the meal – what’s been their favorite part so far? Tyler Orcutt was initially skeptical of the tomato bread, but discovered he loved it. Abdi Abdullahi thought the salad dressing tasted “better than normal.”

Asked if he’s ever been to such a nice restaurant before, Romeo King replied: “I’ve been to the fanciest restaurant in Maine. DiMillo’s.”

The volume starts to rise again. Several boys at one end of the table share a story and start laughing in a loud, infectious way. Just as it’s getting really noisy, the servers bring out churros with hot chocolate sauce for dipping. Suddenly, like flipping a switch, it’s dead quiet.

In the presence of chocolate sauce, manners become a vague memory. Some of the boys lick the chocolate off their fingers. Others wait until Koenigsberg isn’t looking and dip their fingers into the sauce. One boy scrapes the chocolate off his plate with a spoon. He looks longingly at the plate, then licks it once, with a look that says he knows he’s getting away with something, then goes back to using the spoon.

Mohamed Elmi comes back from the restroom and, lucky for him, Koenigsberg has saved him a plate of churros. The other boys figure out where Mohamed has been and several jump up from the table to head toward the restroom. They have to walk through the kitchen to get there, and they are halfway through, looking like a line of ducklings, when Koenigsberg notices.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he calls out as he chases them down.

Dinner ends shortly after 6 p.m., after a little more than an hour of being on their best behavior. Esa Antonio says “Thank you so much!” to the staff and gives them a thumbs up.

Koenigsberg marches them out the door, but instead of getting into the waiting van, they walk down the street to the Reiche School playground because “they just need to, like, run around.”

Later, he’ll say how nervous he was when they walked into Chaval but how proud he was of the boys’ behavior when they walked out. “They’re not used to that type of dining,” he said. “It didn’t go perfectly, but I was so pleased with them.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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